Wellington Caves

Ronville Tunnel - Carrière Wellington - Wellington Quarry - Wellington Cavern


Useful Information

Location: Carrière Wellington, Rue Delétoile, 62000 Arras.
Open: All year daily 10-12:30, 13:30-18.
Closed 01-JAN, three weeks following the Christmas holidays.
[2016]
Fee: Adults EUR 6.90, Reduced EUR 3.20.
[2016]
Classification: World War II Bunker
Light: electric
Dimension: T=11°C. L=20,000m.
Guided tours: L=350m, VR=22m, D=60min.
Photography:  
Accessibility:  
Bibliography:  
Address: Office de Tourisme, Arras Tourist Office, Place des Héros, 62000 Arras, Tel: +33-321-5126-95, Fax: 0321-5176-49. E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.
Last update:$Date: 2015/11/20 13:18:12 $

History

 
MAR-1916start of construction.
1917construction completed.
09-APR-1917Battle of Arras.
1945tunnels closed.
1996tunnels rediscovered.
15-FEB-2008opened to the public.

Description

The Wellington Caves (Carrière Wellington) are often confused with the connected limestone quarries  Les Boves. During World War I the medieval chalk quarries were used as a British Hospital. Apparently the tunnels extend for a considerable distance into all directions.

During the First World War the frontier was located right north of Arras for a rather long time. The German army used the tunnels on their side for various purposes like conveying of soldiers and material, as a bunker, and as storage. As there was also the danger they would tunnel across the frontier and start an offensive behind the lines, the British commanders planned their own mining units since January 1915. During 1915 numerous British mining companies were formed and and deployed along the Western Front. The British Army enlisted experienced coal miners, many outside their nominal recruitment policy. The British government also sent an appeal to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in September 1915, to raise tunnelling companies in the Dominions of the British Empire.

During 1915 the British tunnelers started to work underground, linking the subterranean quarries together. This work was continued by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company and Bantams. The New Zealand tunnelers were miners, specially recruited from the gold and coal mines of the New Zealand. 500 miners, including Māori and Pacific Islanders, started work in March 1916. They formed a tunnel warfare unit which belonged to the Royal New Zealand Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RNZEME), a New Zealand Army Corps assisting regular New Zealand Forces with technical help in field workshops. The Bantams were soldiers of below the British Army's minimum regulation height of 5 ft 3 in (160 cm). The miners originated mostly from the mining towns of Northern England.

The tunnelers worked all along the frontier, but the main construction at Arras started in November 1916, when numerous units were moved there. The Allies devised a plan to add newly-constructed tunnels to the existing network so troops could get up to the battlefield underground. Four Tunnel Companies of 500 men each worked around the clock in 18-hour shifts for two months.

The result were ten kilometers of tunnels called subways, which were meant for foot traffic only. There were tramways with rails for pulling hand-drawn carts called trams. And there were underground railways. The tunnels had electric light, the electricity was provided by its own small powerhouse. The tunnels had sewers and water pipelines for the kitchens and laundrettes. Because of the high number of tunnelers from New Zealand the tunnels were called Wellington Caves. Another name was Ronville Tunnel. Todays French name Carrière Wellington is simply a translation.

The work culminated in what was later called the Battle of Arras on 09-APR-1917 in a surprise attack. The tunnels which stopped short of the German line were blown open by explosives. Conventional mines which were laid under the front lines were blown immediately before the assault. The battle ran through to the 16th May. The British had 15,000 casualties whereas the German troops lost almost 100,000.

Around 1990 large parts of those tunnels have been rediscovered, and over the years were prepared to house a museum. A memorial to 41 New Zealand tunnellers who died during the construction of the tunnels and 151 who were injured, was unveiled at Arras in 2007. A part of the huge tunnel structure was opened to the public in February 2008. There is an underground museum with some 20 displays explaining the construction and the strategic resons for the work. It is located at a depth of some 22m below ground, a glas elevator brings visitors from the above ground Visitor Centre into the tunnels.

A last rather weird fact is one person who fought on the German side in this battle and survived. Adolf Hitler, the future leader of the Nazis, was Gefreiter (private) in the German army at this time. The battle impressed and influenced him very much, and was one piece for his future heroic cult. If he had been killed, a lot of death and horror would have been avoided.

These tunnels are part of a 20 km labyrinth beneath Arras. The Ronville tunnels were dug by soldiers from New Zealand between 1916 and 1917, joining up existing underground chalk quarries, with the intention of tunneling beneath the German lines. The tour takes in kitchens, hospitals and water plants, all fed by a complex system of electric wires, supported from the chalk walls and ceilings, by green coloured glass insulators, all in good condition. Boots, belts, soldiers' identity tags, and coins can still be seen. One 5 km section of tunnel, still shows signs of a 60 centimetre gauge railway system!


Text by Tony Oldham (2002). With kind permission.